September 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
About my previous post – the one about Republicans applauding the high number of executions in Texas under Gov. Rick Perry: Despite a New Year’s resolution to reduce the amount of snark I dump into this blog, that crowd reaction did set me off. I wasn’t the only one. Many non-Republicans (and I hope some Republicans too) were surprised if not appalled.
It’s one thing to be in favor of capital punishment. It’s quite another to cheer for it. Imagine a liberal forum where a question begins, “Mayor Bloomberg, in New York last year there were more than 80,000 abortions . . .” and the audience breaks into applause. It wouldn’t happen, of course. Most pro-choice people see abortion, the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, as an unfortunate, regrettable event* – that’s why they also support contraception and sex education since these too can reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the number of abortions. If an audience did applaud high numbers of abortions, we would be right to wonder about the moral compass of those who cheered.
But for those cheering Republicans Wednesday, when it comes to killing the convicted, apparently the more the better. In a way, this conservative enthusiasm for execution is puzzling. The Republicans, let’s remember, are the folks who think that government can’t do anything right. But when it comes to executing people, the government, in Republican eyes, somehow becomes infallible. (In contrast to this belief, the govenrment in death penalty cases is indeed fallible. At least one of those 234 executed, Cameron Todd Willingham, was almost certainly innocent. And the government would have executed several other innocent people had it not been for the efforts of independent groups like the Innocence Project.)
Conservatives rail against government and want to reduce its power – the power to provide education or to protect workers, consumers, and the environment. Yet when it comes to the power to take life – they lead the cheers. That power – the power of legitimate killing – is the greatest government power of all. In fact, execution is a good indicator of repressive government power. Page through history or look around the globe today at the countries that execute the most people; these are not the governments that let freedom ring.
My guess is that underlying the avid support for death is a tendency towards cognitive simplicity.** This simplicity (often euphemized as “moral clarity”), divides the world in two – Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, and most basically Us and Them. That Us/Them distinction explains how support for death penalty squares with “Thou shalt not kill,” for the commandment carries an unstated specification: Thou shalt not kill one of ours. That’s what it meant to the Hebrews of the Bible, and that’s what it means to the Christians of Texas. They too wrap their rationale in a tribal Us-vs.-Them imagery. We are killing Them. For example, to hear Gov. Perry on Wednesday, you would think that only non-Texans commit crimes that warrant execution. “If you come into our state and you kill one of our children . . . you will be executed.” The problem is not Us; it’s all these homicidal outsiders coming into our state.
This is of a piece with a more general view that seems more characteristic of the right than of the left. To be a conservative is to live in a world in which We are under constant threat from Them. Them is the government, especially a distant government like the government of the nation, taking our money and giving it to “those people.” Them is immigrants coming into our country, our neighborhood. Them is non-Christians, and some of Them are trying to impose their Sharia law on Us. Them is the Obama voters who took Our country from Us. And of course Them is the criminals – the ones we have to protect ourselves against by walking around fully armed, the ones we have to show who’s boss by levying the most Draconian punishments. So when we do kill one or two or 234 of Them, that’s something to be cheered.
* Gloria Steinem used to say that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.
** An earlier post on this is here.